Viewpoints: Is it right to cut benefits to lessen the deficit?

George Osborne said those who are better off would have to pay more in taxes, but the budget could not be balanced "on the wallets of the rich"

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Chancellor George Osborne has said the government is determined to cut a further £10bn from the benefits budget to fight the deficit.

One idea he suggested was limiting the number of children in a family that would be supported on benefits.

Is it right to cut benefits in an attempt to bring down Britain's deficit? Does it make for good economics? Or good politics?

Here are the opinions of a range of commentators, charities, think tanks and those who are on benefits - or managing without them.

Kelly Spencer, 32, single parent to four young children, from Westbury, Wiltshire

I'm in receipt of income support of £125 per fortnight, child tax credits of £230 per week, child benefit of £220 per month, housing benefit of £400 per month and council tax benefit of £100 per month. I'm an engineering graduate and I was made redundant just before my youngest child was born.

Kelly Spencer

I believe that everyone in this country should bear the brunt of the cuts, but at a level they can afford. I think it is wrong to cut benefits to such a level that people suffer extreme hardship and social inequality, especially where children are involved.

I feel the politicians are out of touch and have led very privileged lives. I do not trust this government to look after vulnerable people. They don't seem to care. I can't understand why wealthy people are receiving child benefit - they don't need it. I know some people who give it straight to their kids as pocket money. Why are wealthy pensioners getting universal benefits such as bus pass or fuel allowances?

I feel that the government is demonising people on benefits in order to gain popular support for policies. I feel like it is all about the votes and not about the real people it affects. I think it would be better politics to target people who break the law and cost the country a fortune - tax evaders or criminals, for example.

I don't believe that cutting benefits makes economic sense in the long term. We will end up with a social underclass, resentment rising and an increase in crime and mental illness from stress of struggling to survive. All of this will cost the country dearly.

Jurgita Sirvydiene, 31, admin worker, of Hornchurch, Essex, originally from Lithuania

I was very pleased when I saw this on the news. My husband (who is 32 and a carpenter) and I have been working in this country for more than nine years now, we both have full-time jobs. I come from Lithuania and I was shocked that people in the UK on benefits can afford better life than the ones who work. This is totally wrong.

The government should stop encouraging people to be out of work by paying them a fair amount of money, also it is not right that people on benefits can have two or more children, where working families can't afford to have children at all.

In my opinion they are doing the right thing by cutting benefits, so people will have to get a job. If their earnings are not enough to survive on, only then should they be offered financial help. We need to forget the something-for-nothing culture.

Finally George is doing something about it. They give too much money to the wrong people who are milking the system. It's not right. I think they need to be stricter.

I earn £315 a week in hand, which works out as about £19,500 before tax a year. When I go on maternity leave I will be on 40% of my wages while people on benefits can afford to stay at home and have as many children as they like.

Owen Jones, columnist at the Independent and author of Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class

In the most cynical way possible, cutting benefits can certainly make good politics.

Owen Jones, columnist at the Independent

Since coming to power, the government has attempted to turn the working poor against the unemployed, and the disabled against the non-disabled, over benefits. As a result, it has had some success in redirecting people's anger from those at the top who caused the crisis, to people's neighbours down the streets.

But it is wrong to make the poorest pay for a crisis they did not create; and - given it doesn't address the root causes of welfare spending - these cuts will suck demand out of the economy as well as making people's lives a misery.

It is possible to bring down welfare spending without savage cuts. Billions of pounds are wasted on housing benefit, but it's lining the pockets of wealthy landlords - not tenants - because both New Labour and the Tories failed to build social housing.

Building modern housing would create jobs, stimulate the economy, bring down the five million-strong social housing waiting list - and cut welfare spending.

Ruth Porter, Communications Director at free-market think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs

Welfare accounts for around 25% of government expenditure. It would be very difficult to bring down the deficit without reducing the welfare budget.

By 2010 Gordon Brown had reformed welfare so that around a third of all UK households received more than 50% of their income from taxpayers.

Not only would tackling this problem of welfare dependency help incentivise people to work harder and save more, it would also help to grow the economy by creating more opportunity and investment for the private sector.

George Osborne argued in his conference speech that the government will look to govern in the national interest.

It is time then for him to look at bringing to an end non-means-tested benefits for the elderly and to reduce other welfare payments that have gone beyond simply providing a safety net.

Helen Barnard, programme manager for poverty at anti-poverty charity, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

More welfare cuts will not reduce people's dependency on the state.

Cutting benefits for groups who receive little public sympathy may make for a good conference speech, but it risks increasing poverty and hardship.

Helen Barnard, programme manager for poverty at anti-poverty charity, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

And unless there is a follow-up "master plan" for creating more and better jobs, massively increasing access to them and sorting out the housing crisis, it's not likely to do as much as those advocating further cuts are hoping to reduce the deficit or people's dependency on the state.

Youth homelessness is driven by relationship breakdown. Our research shows that the assumption that most young people receiving housing benefit could happily and safely live with mum and dad until they get a stable, decently paid job and move into a basic but adequate shared flat is a world away from the lives of many poor, young people.

This is reinforced by the statistics on underemployment - 6m people want to work more but can't. It also demonstrates that just "getting a job" isn't the whole point: millions are trapped in a cycle of poorly paid, insecure work and unemployment, with little prospect of breaking into better jobs.

Getting a job is still the best route out of poverty. But these kinds of jobs aren't a very good route. When someone in a family in poverty gets a job, only 56% are lifted out of poverty.

We are hoping to address these issues with a new programme to develop a UK-wide anti-poverty strategy based on the best evidence across all the areas that contribute to poverty. Maybe it'll catch on.

Matthew Sinclair, chief executive, the Taxpayers' Alliance

Matthew Sinclair, chief executive, the Taxpayers' Alliance

The welfare system needs to treat the taxpayers who pick up the bill fairly, not just those claiming benefits.

It is important to encourage people to work, but also to ensure that those living on benefits don't enjoy a lifestyle which many families paying their own way could never afford. The benefits bill is way too high and steps must be taken to ensure that welfare spending is sustainable.

It is wrong to characterise these plans as a way of quickly cutting the deficit - they aren't a short term fix. But they are vital to delivering value for money for taxpayers in the long run.

The chancellor has to get the economy moving again by reforming taxes and leaving more money in people's pockets as well, so fewer people rely on handouts in the first place.

Kay Bews, chief executive of family support charity, Home-Start UK

We acknowledge that hard decisions need to be made, but this one is potentially giving rise to further difficulties and therefore costs in the future. Has Mr Osborne realised the impact this will have on families across society? Home-Start is seeing families who are at breaking point - many of those families were "coping before", getting by, but having to now support their families with even less money is tipping them over the edge.

Kay Bews, chief executive of family support charity, Home-Start UK

The families we work with who are claiming benefits are trying to do the best under very difficult circumstances. Very few benefits claimants choose that way of keeping a roof over their heads or food in their children's mouths - most simply don't have the option.

And in times of economic stress, a cut in benefits will also affect the current tax payers who suddenly find themselves redundant.

Home-Start is seeing the working poor unable to make ends meet. Removing benefits will not necessarily push families into work. A safety net is needed for all. We need to take a much longer-term view - possibly over generations.

Investment in early intervention for families - whether they are working or on benefits - will help reduce police, prison, drug and alcohol, social services and national health service bills by billions of pounds in the longer term. But only time and hindsight will tell.

It's potentially divisive [in terms of politics]. Will the long-term employed vote if they suddenly find that there is little or no support for them if they lose their job? There is also a real risk of widening the gap between families who once were coping with their finances and now won't be able to.

Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas, which debates social issues

Yes it is right to cut benefits: less because it saves money in a narrow way, and more because it is a challenge to an unhelpful climate of complacency and dependency. It could be a commitment to make all sections of society focus on wealth creation and not on handouts.

Of course for those million young people out of work in the UK, it can be galling when their meagre £71 a week unemployment pay is described as exemplifying a "culture of entitlement"; when it seems those with least are the focus of the government's economic strategy.

Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas

But my problem with contemporary welfarism is that it has long moved beyond its original remit of providing a safety net or delivering universal public services. Growing numbers have become permanently and cripplingly dependent on what was envisaged as a temporary measure in hard times. A mood of passively expecting the state to provide rather than a resilient atmosphere of ambitious, get-up-and-go dominates culture.

The welfare state's expansion into every nook and cranny of too many people's lives has been less about saving people from deprivation and expresses more a condescending middle-class view of people as helpless and hapless unless the state helps them to parent correctly, improve their lifestyles, cut down on smoking or drinking, etc.

Frankly, we should welcome cuts in a bureaucratic system that actively undermines people's autonomy and independence. And one reason these cuts are more popular with the vast majority of ordinary people, as opposed to professional hand-wringers, is they know damn well that over-weaning welfarism saps morale and is good for no-one.

Ironically the coalition seems to be a reluctant cutter, for all the rhetoric. The so-called austerity harshness of lowering housing benefit limits from £20,000 annually- £1,700 a month - generous by anyone's budgetary standard - indicates just how much waste there is in the system: it's more about subsidising the social housing sector, than helping the needy.

The solution of course would be ensuring millions more affordable homes and rents. And targeting under-25-year-olds makes some sense. This is after all the most dynamic section of society - with youth on their side they should be kicking out, not just against their parents and elders, but against a system that implies they won't be able to cope without official charity.

So benefit cuts can mean freedom from dependence as much as hardship and at least need to considered by progressives rather than demonised as Thatcherite attacks on the poor. But without an equally ambitious plan for economic growth, Osborne's projected cuts will just cause pain without sufficient gain.

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